Save Me the Plums - Ruth Reichl Page 0,1

compelled her to bring home a can of fried grasshoppers, a large sea urchin with dangerously sharp spines, and a flashy magenta cactus flower. She had little interest in eating these items, but if I was going to insist on reading what she called “that ridiculous magazine,” she thought it should be put to use.

The fried grasshoppers were not a hit; I suspect the can had been sitting on a shelf for years, awaiting some gullible customer. And while the editors were eager to instruct me in the preparation of eels, bears, woodchucks, and snipe, they were strangely silent on the subject of sea urchins. When I finally managed to pry the creature open, I found the gooey black inside so appalling that nothing would have tempted me to taste it. As for the cactus flower, its great good looks camouflaged a total lack of flavor.

But the suckling pig was a different story. I did everything the cookbook suggested and then hovered anxiously near the oven, hoping it hadn’t led me astray. When the pig emerged all crackling skin and sweet soft meat, Mom was happy. “I’ve never tasted anything so delicious,” she grudgingly admitted. “That magazine might be useful after all.”

Dad took one bite and said, “Do you think you could figure out how to make Kassler rippchen?” There was a wistful note in his voice. “It was my favorite food when I was a boy.”

“What is it?” I’d never heard of such a dish.

“Smoked pork chops. I imagine we could get them up in Yorkville.”

I’d never been to Yorkville, but I knew Dad had lived there when he first arrived from Berlin in 1926. (He was twenty-six.) “You can’t imagine how different it was from the rest of the city,” he said as we rode the bus to the Upper East Side. “Every shop, every bakery, every restaurant was German, and in those first months I found it comforting to be surrounded by all those familiar sights and sounds.”

I stared at my tall, rather formal father, fascinated by this glimpse into his past. Dad wasn’t like American fathers—he didn’t have pals, didn’t go out drinking with the guys, had absolutely no interest in sports. I was his only child; he was almost fifty when I was born and was slightly baffled by this newfound fatherhood. Quiet, kind, and intellectual, he rarely talked about himself, and I was afraid if I uttered a single sound he would stop speaking.

“You know my grandmother was American,” he said. I shook my head; I hadn’t known that. “My grandfather came here in the middle of the last century, made a fortune, married an American, and carried her back to Germany. When I arrived in New York, all my grandmother’s relatives came down to the boat to meet me. They wanted me to stay with them, but I felt more comfortable here. Oh, look!”

He’d spotted a butcher shop, its windows crammed with sausages in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes. We climbed off the bus, and as Dad opened the door we walked into a delicious aroma, all spice and smoke with a vague animal funk. I looked up; huge loops of sausage dangled from the ceiling, more kinds than I had ever imagined. There was another scent, something clean and briny that prickled my nose, and I followed the smell to a huge barrel of sauerkraut in the corner.

“Guten tag.” I was shocked; I’d never heard Dad speak German before. But the unfamiliar language rolled off his tongue as he said, “Leberkäse, landjaeger, bauernwurst,” as if each word had a different flavor and he was savoring every one.

The butcher said something, pointing at me, and Dad shook his head. “Schande.” The man tsked a bit as he handed a rosy slice of bologna across the counter. I put it on my tongue, tasting pork, celery seed, and something elusive and slightly sweet. Nutmeg?

“Zo kleine Madchen,” the butcher said. “The father tells me you cook.” He picked up a haunch of pork and sliced off a few thick chops. “Kassler rippchen is not difficult. They are smoked, so you have only to heat them up. Und”—he walked down the counter and filled a container with bright magenta strands—“a little red cabbage and just like that…a good German dinner.”

Dad looked so happy as he pulled out his billfold and collected the parcels. “Would you like,” he said almost shyly, “to explore another neighborhood next Saturday?”

That was how I came to love